a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Thursday, 28 July 2011

07/28/11 53.4 Comparing Rebuilds: Phoenix and Edmonton

Kyle Turris

In part five of the series, we'll look at the supposedly rebuilt Phoenix Coyotes. It's been a long, hard road for the team from the desert, but the worst may still be yet to come.

When one thinks of the weaker teams in the NHL - the ones that are mediocre on the ice and abysmal financially - the Phoenix Coyotes are one of the first teams that come to mind. It wasn't always so. It's so long ago now that it may be difficult for some to remember, but the Coyotes made the playoffs the first four years they were in Phoenix, and five out of their first six after relocating from Winnipeg. Unfortunately, that playoff season in 2001-02 was the last time the Coyotes would make the dance for seven long years including the lockout.

Compared to the Coyotes, the Oilers are in a brilliant spot. Try telling fans in Arizona that their hockey team is going to finish out of the playoffs for a long, but undisclosed period of time - preferably as far down the league standings as possible - and in the end it'll all work out. Oh, and by the way: pack the house every single night, why dontcha?

It wasn't going to happen.

Just like most rebuilds, the one in Phoenix occurred out of necessity, but there was always the underlying need for the team to win in order to attract fans. Because of that, the franchise has had a total of 2 lottery picks in its history, and none higher than 3rd overall.

Blake Wheeler
 That third overall pick was the young man at the top of the page. The other lottery pick was Blake Wheeler, who was selected 5th overall in 2004. Wheeler played out his college hockey at the University of Minnesota and then refused to sign with the team that drafted him. Instead, Wheeler signed with the Boston Bruins and has put up mediocre totals for a 5th overall pick, at 57-70-127 in 244 games.

Perhaps the best way to understand why Phoenix has continued to flounder is to look at their drafts since 2002-03.

2003: 8 picks; none ever played an NHL game
2004: Wheeler 5th overall but never played for Phoenix, 3 other mediocre NHLers; best pick was Daniel Winnik
2005: Easily their best draft; Martin Hanzal 17th and Keith Yandle 105th
2006: Peter Mueller 8th, Chris Summers 29th might be a player and Benn Ferriero 196th. After a series of trades Mueller turned into Michal Roszival who will be 33 this season and in the last year of his contract
2007: Kyle Turris 3rd; has yet to justify his high draft position
2008: LW Mikkel Boedker 8th; 45 points in 126 games so far but still plenty of time to get better. LW Viktor Tikhonov 28th; 16 points in 61 games.
2009: Oliver Ekman-Larsson 6th; could be a very good defenseman one day but it may be a little while yet

In 2010 the team made the playoffs, which is when we stop counting the draft as being part of a rebuilding situation. All told, Phoenix never had the kind of high draft picks to dig themselves out of the hole they are in, and the ones they did have were wasted. Unless Turris can start to show something offensively, he is on the cusp of being a bust. Fellow 2007 draftee Sam Gagner had 131 points after 223 games and has 173 points right now. After next season, Turris will have played around 213 NHL games and is on pace for 75 career points.

If Turris doesn't take a step forward, it could present a large problem for the 'Yotes. Their 1st and 3rd leading scorers, Shane Doan and Ray Whitney, will be 35 and 39 this year respectively. When those two are gone this team will be virtually devoid of scoring, and the goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Labarbera/McElhinney is frightening.

In other words, as the Oilers continue to improve and their rebuild takes shape, the Coyotes will be a punching bag for the Copper and Blue. Whether they are the Phoenix Coyotes or the Coyotes of Parts Unknown, their rebuild is far from finished if it is to be done right.

The Coyotes are a good way for Oilers fans to be reminded of the consequences of never being truly awful. Though it is painful to suck, and to finish 30th in back-to-back years, the worst possible outcome would be to continue to pick in the 6-10 range in perpetuity. Nothing sucks worse than sucking forever. Not even finishing last for two years.

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